TEL AVIV — CNN played a critical role in originally publicizing the existence of a 35-page dossier on President Donald Trump that would later become largely discredited.
The dossier in question was authored by former intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who was reportedly paid by Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans to investigate Trump. Steele recently conceded in court documents that part of his work still needed to be verified.
The dossier contains wild and unproven claims that the Russians had information regarding Trump and sordid sexual acts, including the widely mocked claim that Trump hired prostitutes and had them urinate on a hotel room bed.
On January 10, CNN was first to report the leaked information that the controversial contents of the dossier were presented during classified briefings inside classified documents presented one week earlier to then-President Obama and President-elect Trump.
The news network cited “multiple US officials with direct knowledge of the briefings” – in other words, officials leaking information about classified briefings – revealing the dossier contents were included in a two-page synopsis that served as an addendum to a larger report on Russia’s alleged attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The documents were given to the politicians during the briefings delivered by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, the officials told CNN.
The network reported the documents state that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” and contain “allegations that there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Those allegations, made within the dossier, remain unsubstantiated following numerous public hearings.
Indeed, Brennan made clear in May testimony that after viewing all of the evidence that was available to him on the Russia probe he is not aware of any collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
CNN gives media an opening on the dossier
Just after CNN’s January 10 report on the classified briefings about the dossier, meanwhile, BuzzFeed famously published the dossier’s full unverified contents.
The New York Times used CNN’s story to report some contents of the dossier the same day as CNN’s January 10 report on the briefings.
After citing the CNN story, the Times reported:
The memos describe sex videos involving prostitutes with Mr. Trump in a 2013 visit to a Moscow hotel. The videos were supposedly prepared as “kompromat,” or compromising material, with the possible goal of blackmailing Mr. Trump in the future.
The memos also suggest that Russian officials proposed various lucrative deals, essentially as disguised bribes in order to win influence over Mr. Trump.
The memos describe several purported meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign between Trump representatives and Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
Immediately following CNN’s article, National Intelligence Director Clapper added fuel to the media fire about the dossier by releasing a statement that he spoke to Trump to express “my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press” – referring to the leaks to CNN about the classified briefing. He called the leaks “extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
Clapper’s statement generated fresh media coverage of the dossier briefing.
Prior to CNN’s report, which was picked up by news agencies worldwide, the contents of the dossier had been circulating among news media outlets, but the sensational claims were largely considered too risky to publish.
All that changed when the dossier contents were presented to Obama and Trump during the classified briefings. In other words, the briefings themselves and the subsequent leak to CNN about those briefings by “multiple US officials with direct knowledge,” seem to have given the news media the opening to report on the dossier’s existence as well as allude to some of the document’s unproven claims.
In an updated version of CNN’s report, the network revealed that it had reviewed the 35-page dossier and would not report “on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.”
CNN reported that the classified briefings to Obama and Trump demonstrated the dossier information was “credible enough” to be included in such high-level briefings:
Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer. What has changed since then is that US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.
When it published the full dossier, BuzzFeed reported that the contents had circulated “for months” and were known to journalists.
The website reported, “The documents have circulated for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them. Mother Jones writer David Corn referred to the documents in a late October column.”
In his statement following the leaks to CNN about the dossier briefings to Obama and Trump, Clapper also said the dossier contents had been “widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it.”
It seems the news media waited for the leak about the dossier briefings first reported by CNN before publicizing on the dossier’s existence and some of its contents.
Yet in his testimony, the FBI’s Comey claimed the opposite was the case. He claimed that he and other U.S. officials briefed Obama and Trump about the dossier contents because they wanted to alert the president and president-elect that the news media were about to release the material. It is not the usual job of the U.S. intelligence community to brief top officials about pending news media coverage.
In his prepared remarks before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June, Comey detailed why he claimed the Intelligence Community briefed Obama and Trump on the “salacious material” – a clear reference to the dossier.
The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified. Among those reasons were: (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.
Major questions have been raised as to the veracity of the dossier, large sections of which have been discredited.
Citing a “Kremlin insider,” the dossier, which misspelled the name of a Russian diplomat, claimed that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen held “secret meetings” with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016.
That charge unraveled after Cohen revealed he had never traveled to Prague, calling the story “totally fake, totally inaccurate.” The Atlantic confirmed Cohen’s whereabouts in New York and California during the period the dossier claimed that Cohen was in Prague. Cohen reportedly produced his passport showing he had not traveled to Prague.
In testimony in May, the FBI’s Comey confirmed that the basis for the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia allegedly wanted Trump in office was not because the billionaire was, as Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) claimed during a hearing, “ensnared in” Russia’s “web of patronage” – just as the dossier alleged. Instead, the FBI chief provided two primary reasons for Russia’s alleged favoring of Trump over Clinton during the 2016 presidential race.
One reason, according to Comey, was that Putin “hated” Clinton and would have favored any Republican opponent. The second reason, Comey explained, was that Putin made an assessment that it would be easier to make a deal with a businessman than someone from the political class.
Comey’s statements are a far cry from the conspiracies fueled by the dossier alleging Putin held blackmail information over the billionaire.
Citing current and former government officials, the New Yorker reported the dossier prompted skepticism among intelligence community members, with the publication quoting one member saying it was a “nutty” piece of evidence to submit to a U.S. president.
Steele’s work has been questioned by former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who currently works at the Hillary Clinton-tied Beacon Global Strategies LLC.
According to the BBC, the dossier served as a “roadmap” for the FBI’s investigation into claims of coordination between Moscow and members of Trump’s presidential campaign.
In April, CNN reported that the dossier served as part of the FBI’s justification for seeking the FISA court’s reported approval to clandestinely monitor the communications of Carter Page, the American oil industry consultant who was tangentially and briefly associated with Trump’s presidential campaign.
Senior Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have reportedly requested that the FBI and Department of Justice turn over applications for any warrants to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens associated with the investigation into alleged Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In testimony last month, Comey repeatedly refused to answer questions about his agency’s ties to the dossier.
In testimony last month to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Comey admitted he pushed back against a request from President Donald Trump to possibly investigate the origins of “salacious material” that the agency possessed in the course of its investigation into alleged Russian interference.
Author and journalist Paul Sperry reported in the New York Post last week that this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee threatened to subpoena Fusion GPS, the secretive firm that hired Steele to produce the dossier because the firm reportedly refused to answer questions about who financed the dossier.
Sperry raised further questions regarding possible connections between Fusion GPS and Hillary Clinton:
Fusion GPS was on the payroll of an unidentified Democratic ally of Clinton when it hired a long-retired British spy to dig up dirt on Trump. In 2012, Democrats hired Fusion GPS to uncover dirt on GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. And in 2015, Democratic ally Planned Parenthood retained Fusion GPS to investigate pro-life activists protesting the abortion group.
Moreover, federal records show a key co-founder and partner in the firm was a Hillary Clinton donor and supporter of her presidential campaign.
In September 2016, while Fusion GPS was quietly shopping the dirty dossier on Trump around Washington, its co-founder and partner Peter R. Fritsch contributed at least $1,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund and the Hillary For America campaign, Federal Election Commission data show. His wife also donated money to Hillary’s campaign.
CNN under fire
CNN, meanwhile, has been under fire for several weeks, after the network retracted a story that relied on one anonymous source to allege ties between a Trump ally and a Russian investment bank. Three CNN staffers reportedly resigned in the wake of the scandal. The network abruptly deleted and then retracted the story after Breitbart News’s Matt Boyle questioned the narrative.
CNN faced more controversy after Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe released a video in which the network’s supervising producer, John Bonifield, who works for the medical and health section, referred to the Russia interference story as “mostly bullshit” while indicating the story was being pumped for ratings.
“I just feel like they don’t really have it, but they want to keep digging. And so I think the president is probably right to say, like, ‘Look, you are witch hunting me,’” Bonifield was filmed stating. “You have no smoking gun. You have no real proof.”
O’Keefe followed that up with a second video on Wednesday in which CNN commentator Van Jones called the Russia collusion story a “big nothing burger.”
A third O’Keefe video caught a producer for CNN’s New Day show with Chris Cuomo criticizing Trump and mocking American voters.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, Aaron Klein Investigative Radio. Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
This article was written with additional research by Joshua Klein.